Maryclaire Moroney and her beloved dog and “healer” George.
Maryclaire Moroney was just a teenager when she came across a half-starved, mostly frozen tiny dog huddled outside the public library in her North Virginia town. She scooped the terrified dog into her arms and headed for home, all the while plotting her strategy for convincing her mother to let her keep the little orphan. Fortunately for Maryclaire—and especially for the foundling she named Dinah—her mother took very little convincing once she saw the pathetic dog with matted fur, and Dinah became the latest in a long line of pampered canine family members.
Dinah wasn’t the first animal to find a hero in Maryclaire and would be far from the last. But of all the pets in her life, it’s that tiny abandoned poodle whose memory brings tears to her eyes. “When I think of Dinah I think of my mom,” she said. “That dog was so devoted to her.”
That devotion was never as apparent as when, 8 years later, Maryclaire was called home from her graduate studies at Harvard when her mother was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. She died only 9 weeks later, never returning home from the hospital. Dinah spent each day camped out at the back door, waiting in vain for her favorite person to come home. At night, she burrowed into a pile of unwashed laundry to surround herself with the scent and feel of the person she loved most. “It’s funny,” said Maryclaire, “but the thought of someone loving you so completely is both comforting and heartbreaking.”
Though Maryclaire’s mother wasn’t there to witness her beloved dog’s vigil, to Maryclaire, Dinah’s unwavering devotion was a comforting reminder of just how much her mother was loved. “Holding Dinah in my arms gave me a sense of connection to my mom,” she said.
Fast-forward 23 years, and Maryclaire would experience that kind of extraordinary love firsthand, and under similar circumstances. This time, the diagnosis was Hodgkin lymphoma and the purveyor of unconditional devotion was a shepherd-mix named George.
It was the fall of 2008 when an enlarged lymph node sent Maryclaire to her primary care physician. After a failed course of antibiotics she was referred to a head and neck surgeon for an excisional biopsy. Maryclaire was still groggy from the anesthesia when she heard a surgical resident comment that it “looks like Hodgkin lymphoma,” but it would be 9 long days before that diagnosis would be confirmed.
The then-48-year-old single mother of 2 made a deliberate decision not to tell her children—at least, not yet. “I knew there was a chance that I could die,” she said. “My kids weren’t ready to hear that and I certainly wasn’t ready to tell them.” Indeed, Maryclaire’s adopted children, who were then 14 and 16 years old, had already experienced more than their share of pain and loss. “It had been only 7 years since they’d come to me, and we were only just beginning to work through all that had happened to them. I was terrified that I’d be taken from them before I’d had the chance to finish the task at hand.”
Like so many women, Maryclaire was the consummate caregiver. She had a solid support system of family, friends, and colleagues, but didn’t want to worry them prematurely. And she was far from ready to open the floodgates to well-intended expressions of sympathy and concern. Even so, Maryclaire needed to talk to someone, and she found a willing volunteer in George.
Maryclaire had adopted George in the summer of 2005 when he was just 7 weeks old. The puppy had been abandoned as a newborn and had just recovered from the highly contagious, often-fatal parvovirus. With her children at her side, Maryclaire cared for the frail pup, and George grew into a big, silly, loving family companion. Three short years later, George would return the favor a thousandfold—and would do so over and over again.
“I was walking on eggshells around my family and friends,” Maryclaire recalled. “For their sake, I felt the need to be strong and cheerful.” For her own sake, however, Maryclaire needed someone to give her permission to fall apart, and to do so without worrying about anyone else’s feelings. Not surprisingly, George was the perfect candidate for the job. For the first of what would be many times, she buried her face in George’s fur and let the tears come. “He had no fears or expectations. He just let me feel what I was feeling. It was exactly what I needed and it was something I couldn’t have gotten from anyone else.”